Renowned American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, noted that a person’s final level of psychological development is achieved when all basic and mental needs are fulfilled and the “actualization” of a person’s full personal potential takes place. Examples of self-actualization include the ability to express one’s creativity, pursue spiritual enlightenment and knowledge, and contribute meaningfully to society. In order to achieve this self-actualization, however, one’s basic needs – food, security, shelter, belongingness – must be first met. When we live lives that are different from our true nature and capabilities, we are less likely to be satisfied as compared to those whose goals and lives are in harmony.
I have always been partial to the idea of striving for self-actualization as opposed to seeking some abstract notion of happiness. Happiness, as far as I am concerned, is fleeting. It is unsustainable in an ever-changing world with constant demands. In this way, my objective in relationships has never been to be with someone who has made me happy per se. Rather, the litmus test includes: Is there mutual passion and desire to understand? Can we see the beauty and potential in each other? Do we seek to own the other or can we love so fiercely that we can set each other free to choose rather than bow down to obligatory actions?
This is a complex analysis, no doubt, fraught with potential pit falls. For example, it leaves me vulnerable to affective forecasting error: the belief that future positive and negative effects will have a bigger impact on my future happiness than they actually will. Essentially, there is no way to guarantee that my future self will be happy with my present self’s decision making. But I take solace in Maslow’s belief that ultimately people are essentially motivated to realize their full potential. It’s what drives them to make the day-to-day decisions, and dream about future goals. And to this end, if I can be in a partnership with someone who also seeks to realize themselves completely, who allows me to do the same, I think that is the beginning of the greatest love story ever.
But what does it mean to live a life seeking self-actualization? Researchers say it includes the following: being able to judge situations correctly and honestly; accepting mine and other’s shortcomings (with humor and tolerance); relying on my own experiences to form opinions and not being swayed by questionable cultural values; embracing a spontaneous way of living despite what others may want; finding tasks that take me beyond myself to contribute to a greater good; striving for autonomy in thought, deed, and word; appreciating the world around me; finding comfort in solitude while being socially compassionate; nurturing close relationships; and lastly, forging deep, loving bonds.
This last one — the development of loving bonds — for me requires kindness and intelligence, both on my part and in my beloved. When those two elements are absent, suspicion, hostility, and anger invariably rear their ugly head despite our best of intentions. I really believe that kindness goes a long way in staving off broken dishes, slammed doors, cold shoulders, and lonely nights.
Ultimately, I may not always have made the best choices for my future happiness, but prescience about our future selves is a complicated, if not impossible matter for most people. However, I am hopeful if I start from a place of kindness and intelligence, I can, to paraphrase Tom and Schmidt:
Find four limbs of a tree,
build four walls and a floor,
bind it over with leaves,
and run inside with you to stay.
Then we can let it rain,
we’ll not feel it
if it never stops at all.
within our own four walls…
I know that the question of “Does this person make me happy?” is a much simpler analysis. And perhaps if I were a simpler person, this would satisfy me. But it doesn’t. And honestly, I’d rather be alone in a corner with a puppy and a goldfish then deny my chocolaty, complex, actualized-seeking spirit.